WALDORF, Md. —The Obama administration pressed onward Monday with its proposed college affordability plan – dispatching several high-level education officials to three different states to tout the plan’s relevance to everyday students trying to make their way toward a degree.
Among the places that Team Obama visited Monday was the Waldorf Higher Education Center, where roughly two dozen students from a variety of Maryland colleges and universities crammed into a third-floor conference room to hear from and speak with a Democratic congressman, a state lawmaker and an assistant secretary of education.
Ostensibly a listening session meant to give the students a voice on the issue of the cost of college education, the event also gave Democrats a platform to remind constituents during an election year what Team Obama has done to make higher education more affordable and more accessible — the boosting of Pell grants and simplification of the FASFA forms, for instance — since President Obama took office in 2009.
U.S. Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) repeatedly cast the issue of college affordability as a key element of American competitiveness in a global economy, tying students’ individual well-being to the future well-being of the nation.
“What it’s for is to make sure that our society succeeds and is competitive and is growing and expanding,” Hoyer said of college education and the federal money reserved to support students and institutions. “It is for you to take advantage of,” Hoyer said, “because if you succeed individually, collectively we’ll succeed.”
Based on what the students told Hoyer, Maryland State Delegate John L. Bohanan, Jr., and Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education Eduardo M. Ochoa, a series of hurdles stand between the students and the degrees that they’re being told they need to succeed in today’s economy.
Those hurdles ranged from lack of awareness and information about the true cost of college to ineligibility for various grants because their parents earn too much — but not enough, they say, to pay for college.
For instance, Stephen Kennedy, 19, spoke of being denied various grants because his father, a detective with the Montgomery County Police Department, earned too much money.
“I have five other siblings. Two of them are in college. He can’t afford to pay for all of us,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy, now a student at Maryland TESST College of Technology, a private, two-year, for-profit where he is majoring in criminal justice in a one-and-a-half-year program that he says costs $31,000, says he “barely” got a Pell grant.
“Paying off loans is going to be hard,” Kennedy said.
Ochoa and Hoyer noted that under the Obama administration, those who work in public service, like Kennedy, who plans to follow his father into law enforcement, could have certain loans forgiven if they make their payments for 10 years.
Kennedy credited TESST with not requiring unnecessary courses toward his degree — something that Assistant Secretary Ochoa, in his remarks to the students, said the Obama administration is interested in seeing more colleges do to become more efficient.
“The idea is to … leverage resources that states currently devote to higher education to incentivize reform at the state level that in turn will drive the institutions and state systems to increase efficiency and effectiveness,” Ochoa said in explaining the Obama Administration’s college affordability plans.
Like other Obama administration officials, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke Monday in Massachusetts and Florida, respectively, Ochoa spent the bulk of his talk outlining the administration’s college affordability plan, which includes:
· Reforms that would steer federal funds away from colleges that fail to keep net tuition down, and toward those colleges and universities that do their fair share to keep tuition affordable, provide good value and serve needy students well.
· A $1 billion “Race to the Top” fund for college affordability and completion that will “create incentives for states and colleges to keep costs under control,” similar to the “Race to the Top” fund the administration implemented at the K-12 level for states.
· A $55 million First in the World competition meant to “model innovation” and to support colleges and non-profits “as they work to develop and test the next breakthrough strategy that will boost higher education attainment and student outcomes.” The competition also will help scale up practices that boost productivity.
· A “College Scorecard” for all degree-granting institutions that will provide “essential information” about college costs, graduation rates and potential earnings.
John Jones, 25, a sophomore at the College of Southern Maryland, said such information would have been useful when he enrolled at North Carolina A&T University after having graduated from high school at age 16.
“The cost of tuition was much higher than my parents realized,” Jones said of his parents, who did not attend college. “There were a lot of hidden fees and unexpected costs, like meal plans and stuff like that that they don’t tell you about until orientation.”
Jones said he had to quit school for several years and had to take out loans just to pay off the first year of college at North Carolina A&T.
Now, after a hiatus in higher education, he’s at a two-year college that he says is a “good stepping stone to go to a four-year college.”